The recent rioting in Baltimore followed the death of a black man in police custody, but the larger source of the crowd’s anger was widespread inequality and everyday deprivation.
Speaking before a rapt audience and to the Yale School of Public Health’s centennial graduating class on Monday, Sir Michael Marmot addressed how health and economic disparities in the United States (and elsewhere) are straining the foundations of civil societies.
Marmot recently visited sections of Baltimore and said that he found two vastly different cities separated only by a 10-minute car trip. One section was marked by expensive homes and obvious privilege. The other section was filled with abandoned buildings and an air of hopelessness. What’s more, the life expectancy of people living in the two neighborhoods reflected their surroundings. People in the more affluent enclave live an average of 83 years, while residents in the poorer section live an average of 63 years.
One’s mailing address, he noted, can add or subtract 20 years of life.
“We have in our hands the means to close [this] gap in a generation. The question is, what do we have in our hearts?” he asked the gathering.
Marmot received the C.-E.A. Winslow Award, the School of Public Health’s highest honor. The medal is named for the school’s founder (Charles-Edward Amory Winslow) and is given to leading public health innovators. Marmot is the first of three medal recipients this year as the school celebrates its centennial. The medal (see sidebar) has been given previously to three other public health practitioners.
Marmot has lead research on health inequalities for 35 years and is an internationally recognized scholar on how such disparities contribute influence health. He served as chair of a World Health Organization committee studying the social determinant of health and produced a report, Closing the Gap in a Generation, on the topic. He was knighted in 2000.
Dean Paul Cleary listed Marmot’s many awards and honors, noting that even one of them would be impressive for most people. But accolades are not what have driven
Sir Michael, whom he compared to Winslow and his vision that health and longevity are each person’s birthright.
“He is a fine, caring and compassionate man,” Dean Cleary said of Marmot.
As he continued his address, Marmot noted that the life expectancy of a nation’s population is an indication of a good society and that an individual’s long life is a measure of a life well lived.
Education is a major factor in determining how long a person might live. With education, people learn life skills and are better able to navigate short- and long-term challenges. Education also confers professional skills, which result in better jobs, better incomes and better places to live.
Some countries have made great strides in addressing the health gap. Marmot cited the success of countries such as Norway and Sweden in ensuring that all citizens have a good quality of life. Addressing such disparities, he said, is a matter of social justice.